Councilman experiences permitting delay firsthand trying to open a gym

First District City Councilman Andreas Addison in the Scott’s Addition space where he’s opening a gym. He applied for permits to remodel the space over a year ago. (Jonathan Spiers photos)

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series examining development review processes at Richmond City Hall. For the first article, click here.

Builders and developers aren’t the only ones venting about plan review and permitting times at Richmond City Hall. So is a sitting City Councilman.

Andreas Addison, who once worked in City Hall before getting elected five years ago, learned firsthand what the development community has been griping about for years when he sought permits for a gym he’s looking to open in Scott’s Addition.

He signed a lease for part of a building early last year and put in for permits to remodel the space. Five months later, Addison said he thought everything was on track to get his building permit and start the work on schedule.

That’s when he got a call from City Hall.

He said he was told that the city was rejecting his permit due to an encroachment issue with an access ramp that he’d planned to install on the building’s exterior, on part of the 10-foot-wide sidewalk alongside it. To get the permit, the ramp would need to be moved inside the space. He said the change cost him an additional $40,000, and required him to scratch a planned juice bar for the gym.

“That phone call came at month five, and (the ramp) was on page two of the plans,” he said. “Why did it take four months to get to that point? That should have been said at month two at the latest.”

By September, nine months after he’d applied, Addison got his permit. Seven months of remodeling work later, he said he’s almost ready to open for business.

Permit notices are displayed on the door of Addison’s gym space.

But the first-time entrepreneur had also gotten a crash course in the challenges he’d previously seen as a city employee, and continues to see from his City Council seat.

“In that conversation, I burned through 12 months of free rent. I’m now paying my third month of rent, in a building that I really should have been opened in months ago,” he said. “For a first-time business owner investing in this type of project, it’s very discouraging.”

Addison’s experience is like many across the city that administrators and others are aiming to address by filling vacant staff positions, outsourcing some plans to reduce a review backlog, and an anticipated upgrade to processing software that’s included in the city’s proposed fiscal year budget.

Addison said he’s glad to see such efforts being prioritized, but that his own permitting experience has been all the more frustrating in light of past efforts he’d seen in his time as a management analyst for the city, as well as in his current role representing Richmond’s West End voter district.

He said one of his first assignments when he started working at City Hall was a proposed rate increase for permits that was meant to fund the purchase of Energov, the office’s current processing software that’s taken years to roll out. That was in 2008, he noted. 

“2022, and it’s probably the same if not worse of a process than what it was before,” Addison said.

“When I sit on City Council, what I see is I rezoned all this neighborhood TOD,” he added, referring to the “transit-oriented” zoning that was first introduced in Scott’s Addition to help drive development there. “I’m expecting that to create building permits, attract private investment opportunities, to create businesses to open, create jobs, build housing – all the other goals of City Council.

“Affordable housing, job creation, minority business contracting, minority business development and creation – those start from a building permit,” he said. “If that’s broken as a process, then we’re not going to achieve those goals.”

Targets set

City administrators have said they’re committed to fixing the process and acknowledge challenges that remain to be addressed.

In his regular report to the Planning Commission last week, Kevin Vonck, who oversees the office as director of the Planning and Development Review (PDR) department, addressed the topic with comments he’d also shared with BizSense in light of a report on the issue that had run that morning.

Planning and Development Review Department Director Kevin Vonck outside Richmond City Hall. (BizSense file)

“The situation we find ourselves in, in terms of delays, is unacceptable,” Vonck said to the commission. “We didn’t get here overnight. But since I assumed this role and became aware of it, I’ve made a commitment to improving it.

“As our application volume continues to hold strong, we’ve been stymied by budget constraints, personnel shortages, technology upgrades and outages, and COVID. But we continue to persevere,” he said. “There’s going to be more setbacks along the way; that just happens when making change. But I really feel we have the right team in place to make sure that that change happens.”

Vonck’s comments drew responses from Chairman Rodney Poole and Commissioner Elizabeth Greenfield, who also serves as vice president of government affairs for the Home Building Association of Richmond (HBAR).

“From an industry perspective, I know Mr. Vonck and his staff have been working hard, and I also know that they have been very engaging in reaching out to industry reps to be responsive and try to make improvements,” Greenfield said. “I appreciate what you’re doing and I know that you’ve got a tough job ahead of you. But we’re grateful that you are at least working with us.”

In recent weeks, an HBAR contingent met with Vonck and other administrators to discuss goals for addressing the office’s challenges.

Danna Markland

Danna Markland, HBAR’s CEO, said many of those goals are the same from two years ago, before the pandemic resulted in a hiring freeze and other factors that prevented them from being achieved.

In an email to BizSense, Markland said, “The pandemic put these implementation strategies on ice in the first quarter of 2020. But it’s time for the administration to prioritize the fix with the utmost urgency.

“The gravity of the situation can no longer be understated,” she said. “Development and construction costs continue to increase weekly, and the time it takes to get through the city’s plan review and permitting process is breaking projects financially.

“Projects of scale may survive because they have the financial resources to endure the prolonged process. However, homeowners, small to mid-sized development and building companies depend on predictability and certainty in processes — and that can’t be found in Richmond.”

Among the parties’ shared goals is hiring a deputy PDR director to act as a liaison between permit applicants and departments, and to add more permit specialists on staff. Those positions would help reduce intake times to targets of between three to five days for permits and residential plan reviews, five to 10 days for commercial plan reviews, 15-20 days for heavy commercial plan reviews, and two to three days for inspections.

Energov, which has been deemed ineffective, is to be phased out at a later date and replaced with new software. That process is expected to take multiple years with an in-house system to be used in the interim. And turnaround times for development plan reviews are aimed for 38 business days with zoning involved, 68 days without zoning with one round of comments, and 99 days without zoning with two rounds of comments.

A letter informing HBAR members of the goals said city staff intends to outline the changes in an ordinance to be drafted and introduced this spring.

Markland said HBAR wants to work with the city to help improve the processes for everyone, both its builder members and city staff. She said the development community similarly offered to help with the Energov rollout and would do so again through the next system transition.

“We hope that with this new system, the city takes us up on the offer to be partners in the process,” she said. “We are all invested in the city’s success and want to see this be successful.”

Working on the space over the weekend, Addison said he expects to open his gym in a few weeks.

‘You don’t “reject” my permit’

For his part, Addison, who’s set to open his Pure Fitness RVA gym in coming weeks, said any changes to be made must involve input not only from the building and development community, but also from individual applicants and first-timers like himself. Addison was at work finishing up the 5,000-square-foot space at 2921 Moore St. over the weekend.

“I want the development community, homebuilders and others at the table not complaining, but sharing what that new process needs to include. Because for me, this can’t happen again,” he said. “And I know it is. I have emails from other entrepreneurs and developers that are getting run around in circles around this process as well.”

Addison said the challenge is more than about staffing or software. He said it’s also in how staff approaches the job, which he described as a cultural challenge within City Hall.

“The expectation was for me to figure out the solution, rather than it being, ‘Hey, here’s what we’ll accept,’” he said of his permitting experience. “Every time I have to figure it all out and I go into another jurisdiction’s office (for opening) a business, it’s like, ‘Hey, let me help you through the process.’ That’s not what I’ve received at all (with the city).

“You don’t ‘reject’ my permit. You ‘can’t approve’ it,” Addison said. “I’ve been told my plan’s rejected, and I’m like, ‘No, you just can’t approve it. That shows, to me, the culture of the mindset of how this was designed in the beginning. I go to Chick-fil-A, everything is ‘My pleasure.’ That’s exactly how this should be.

“Rejecting my permit is saying no to investment, saying no to the jobs, saying no to the revenue. That is not on the table as an option,” he said. “We’re at a moment with this recovery and this opportunity as a city to grow and to truly embrace our future, and I feel like these details are what’s going to make or break our success.”

Correction: The name of Addison’s gym is Pure Fitness RVA. An earlier version of this story referred to a different name listed on his building permit.

First District City Councilman Andreas Addison in the Scott’s Addition space where he’s opening a gym. He applied for permits to remodel the space over a year ago. (Jonathan Spiers photos)

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series examining development review processes at Richmond City Hall. For the first article, click here.

Builders and developers aren’t the only ones venting about plan review and permitting times at Richmond City Hall. So is a sitting City Councilman.

Andreas Addison, who once worked in City Hall before getting elected five years ago, learned firsthand what the development community has been griping about for years when he sought permits for a gym he’s looking to open in Scott’s Addition.

He signed a lease for part of a building early last year and put in for permits to remodel the space. Five months later, Addison said he thought everything was on track to get his building permit and start the work on schedule.

That’s when he got a call from City Hall.

He said he was told that the city was rejecting his permit due to an encroachment issue with an access ramp that he’d planned to install on the building’s exterior, on part of the 10-foot-wide sidewalk alongside it. To get the permit, the ramp would need to be moved inside the space. He said the change cost him an additional $40,000, and required him to scratch a planned juice bar for the gym.

“That phone call came at month five, and (the ramp) was on page two of the plans,” he said. “Why did it take four months to get to that point? That should have been said at month two at the latest.”

By September, nine months after he’d applied, Addison got his permit. Seven months of remodeling work later, he said he’s almost ready to open for business.

Permit notices are displayed on the door of Addison’s gym space.

But the first-time entrepreneur had also gotten a crash course in the challenges he’d previously seen as a city employee, and continues to see from his City Council seat.

“In that conversation, I burned through 12 months of free rent. I’m now paying my third month of rent, in a building that I really should have been opened in months ago,” he said. “For a first-time business owner investing in this type of project, it’s very discouraging.”

Addison’s experience is like many across the city that administrators and others are aiming to address by filling vacant staff positions, outsourcing some plans to reduce a review backlog, and an anticipated upgrade to processing software that’s included in the city’s proposed fiscal year budget.

Addison said he’s glad to see such efforts being prioritized, but that his own permitting experience has been all the more frustrating in light of past efforts he’d seen in his time as a management analyst for the city, as well as in his current role representing Richmond’s West End voter district.

He said one of his first assignments when he started working at City Hall was a proposed rate increase for permits that was meant to fund the purchase of Energov, the office’s current processing software that’s taken years to roll out. That was in 2008, he noted. 

“2022, and it’s probably the same if not worse of a process than what it was before,” Addison said.

“When I sit on City Council, what I see is I rezoned all this neighborhood TOD,” he added, referring to the “transit-oriented” zoning that was first introduced in Scott’s Addition to help drive development there. “I’m expecting that to create building permits, attract private investment opportunities, to create businesses to open, create jobs, build housing – all the other goals of City Council.

“Affordable housing, job creation, minority business contracting, minority business development and creation – those start from a building permit,” he said. “If that’s broken as a process, then we’re not going to achieve those goals.”

Targets set

City administrators have said they’re committed to fixing the process and acknowledge challenges that remain to be addressed.

In his regular report to the Planning Commission last week, Kevin Vonck, who oversees the office as director of the Planning and Development Review (PDR) department, addressed the topic with comments he’d also shared with BizSense in light of a report on the issue that had run that morning.

Planning and Development Review Department Director Kevin Vonck outside Richmond City Hall. (BizSense file)

“The situation we find ourselves in, in terms of delays, is unacceptable,” Vonck said to the commission. “We didn’t get here overnight. But since I assumed this role and became aware of it, I’ve made a commitment to improving it.

“As our application volume continues to hold strong, we’ve been stymied by budget constraints, personnel shortages, technology upgrades and outages, and COVID. But we continue to persevere,” he said. “There’s going to be more setbacks along the way; that just happens when making change. But I really feel we have the right team in place to make sure that that change happens.”

Vonck’s comments drew responses from Chairman Rodney Poole and Commissioner Elizabeth Greenfield, who also serves as vice president of government affairs for the Home Building Association of Richmond (HBAR).

“From an industry perspective, I know Mr. Vonck and his staff have been working hard, and I also know that they have been very engaging in reaching out to industry reps to be responsive and try to make improvements,” Greenfield said. “I appreciate what you’re doing and I know that you’ve got a tough job ahead of you. But we’re grateful that you are at least working with us.”

In recent weeks, an HBAR contingent met with Vonck and other administrators to discuss goals for addressing the office’s challenges.

Danna Markland

Danna Markland, HBAR’s CEO, said many of those goals are the same from two years ago, before the pandemic resulted in a hiring freeze and other factors that prevented them from being achieved.

In an email to BizSense, Markland said, “The pandemic put these implementation strategies on ice in the first quarter of 2020. But it’s time for the administration to prioritize the fix with the utmost urgency.

“The gravity of the situation can no longer be understated,” she said. “Development and construction costs continue to increase weekly, and the time it takes to get through the city’s plan review and permitting process is breaking projects financially.

“Projects of scale may survive because they have the financial resources to endure the prolonged process. However, homeowners, small to mid-sized development and building companies depend on predictability and certainty in processes — and that can’t be found in Richmond.”

Among the parties’ shared goals is hiring a deputy PDR director to act as a liaison between permit applicants and departments, and to add more permit specialists on staff. Those positions would help reduce intake times to targets of between three to five days for permits and residential plan reviews, five to 10 days for commercial plan reviews, 15-20 days for heavy commercial plan reviews, and two to three days for inspections.

Energov, which has been deemed ineffective, is to be phased out at a later date and replaced with new software. That process is expected to take multiple years with an in-house system to be used in the interim. And turnaround times for development plan reviews are aimed for 38 business days with zoning involved, 68 days without zoning with one round of comments, and 99 days without zoning with two rounds of comments.

A letter informing HBAR members of the goals said city staff intends to outline the changes in an ordinance to be drafted and introduced this spring.

Markland said HBAR wants to work with the city to help improve the processes for everyone, both its builder members and city staff. She said the development community similarly offered to help with the Energov rollout and would do so again through the next system transition.

“We hope that with this new system, the city takes us up on the offer to be partners in the process,” she said. “We are all invested in the city’s success and want to see this be successful.”

Working on the space over the weekend, Addison said he expects to open his gym in a few weeks.

‘You don’t “reject” my permit’

For his part, Addison, who’s set to open his Pure Fitness RVA gym in coming weeks, said any changes to be made must involve input not only from the building and development community, but also from individual applicants and first-timers like himself. Addison was at work finishing up the 5,000-square-foot space at 2921 Moore St. over the weekend.

“I want the development community, homebuilders and others at the table not complaining, but sharing what that new process needs to include. Because for me, this can’t happen again,” he said. “And I know it is. I have emails from other entrepreneurs and developers that are getting run around in circles around this process as well.”

Addison said the challenge is more than about staffing or software. He said it’s also in how staff approaches the job, which he described as a cultural challenge within City Hall.

“The expectation was for me to figure out the solution, rather than it being, ‘Hey, here’s what we’ll accept,’” he said of his permitting experience. “Every time I have to figure it all out and I go into another jurisdiction’s office (for opening) a business, it’s like, ‘Hey, let me help you through the process.’ That’s not what I’ve received at all (with the city).

“You don’t ‘reject’ my permit. You ‘can’t approve’ it,” Addison said. “I’ve been told my plan’s rejected, and I’m like, ‘No, you just can’t approve it. That shows, to me, the culture of the mindset of how this was designed in the beginning. I go to Chick-fil-A, everything is ‘My pleasure.’ That’s exactly how this should be.

“Rejecting my permit is saying no to investment, saying no to the jobs, saying no to the revenue. That is not on the table as an option,” he said. “We’re at a moment with this recovery and this opportunity as a city to grow and to truly embrace our future, and I feel like these details are what’s going to make or break our success.”

Correction: The name of Addison’s gym is Pure Fitness RVA. An earlier version of this story referred to a different name listed on his building permit.

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Michael Patterson
Michael Patterson
3 months ago

Well said.

Roger Turner
Roger Turner
3 months ago

I have often thought that people that have confidence in government to operate efficiently and effectively must not have many day to day interactions with them. There are plenty of examples but take DMV for example. I have driven past the Brook Road location probably a dozen times on a Saturday morning in the last six months and each time there is a line of what appears to be 100 people or more standing outside in the freezing cold before they open. All I can think every time is “If that was a private business and you had that kind… Read more »

Ed Christina
Ed Christina
3 months ago
Reply to  Roger Turner

To be fair, if you had a line out the door at a private business, you’d be losing money to turn away customers. I’m sure everyone who shows up at the DMV (for in person service)costs the state money

Garry Whelan
Garry Whelan
3 months ago
Reply to  Roger Turner

I have had one singular bad experience with DMV in nearly 9 years here. Everything else has been efficient, quick and polite, before the pandemic and in the last few weeks.

Matt Faris
Matt Faris
3 months ago
Reply to  Roger Turner

DMV is open 8-5 daily PLUS 8-noon on Saturday. AND you can make an appointment! Never mind theonline transactions – there are many. Plus get many records unrelated to motor vehicles. I was in-and-out at 8:00 am for a birth certificate in 10 minutes. I wish all office were half that efficient.

Lisa Mcsherry
Lisa Mcsherry
3 months ago

I hate that this is happening to him but I have always said it feels like the city does not want new businesses to open. After opening two businesses in the city I have never changed my feeling on this topic. The city does not help new businesses open in anyway and it does not seem to matter how much taxes they receive from small businesses they don’t help to beautify the area in anyway either. Such a shame.

kay christensen
kay christensen
3 months ago

Good to hear that “cultural changes” need to happen in city hall. The employees at Richmond City Hall are some of the rudest, most incompetent individuals in government. They absolutely do not see themselves as public servants to provide service and value to the citizens of Richmond. Unfortunately, it’s not just one office that’s a problem- it’s pervasive throughout the city…and, this comes from the top. The city needs bold leadership to sweep out hundreds of city employees and address these long-standing cultural problems.

Jackson Joyner
Jackson Joyner
3 months ago

I agree. Is it hard to get fired as a city employee? I have experienced the smug, “don’t rush me”, attitude of many city employees over the years. These people would not last for more than a week in the private sector.

Bruce Milam
Bruce Milam
3 months ago

Welcome to our world Andreas. The problem has always been under-funding and under-staffing the planning department and that continues to this day. The City has half the planning department staff of Henrico, servicing an equal or greater number of applications, and at lower salaries, almost non-existent in-house training, and negligent advancement. We passed the tipping point years ago, and we’ll continue to see demand for more housing in the City for years to come. The process has to be fixed.

Matt Merica
Matt Merica
3 months ago
Reply to  Bruce Milam

So what you are saying is that despite a higher tax rate than Henrico regarding real estate ($1.20/100 vs .87/100) and years of ineptitude, the “problems” with the City continue…The whole system in the city is a joke, starting with the top leadership. BTW, the Henrico budget and the City budget are almost the same.

Mike K. Smith
Mike K. Smith
3 months ago
Reply to  Bruce Milam

The city charges 33% more in property taxes versus the local Counties and we get 50% worse service. It is NOT lack of Staff. C’mon. Richmond City government is bloated, overpaid, and incompetent. Give me the best 7-11 store manager in the City of Richmond and appoint them City Mayor and this problem is solved in 12-18 months. It’s not complicated.

Mike

Matt Faris
Matt Faris
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike K. Smith

While not defending the city, comparing taxes is not a level feld. Cities and counties have far different expenses. Street for one. VDOT maintains Chesterfield streets, VDOT pays Henrico a fortune to cover their costs (and then some per Byrd Act) The city maintains most of theirs, along with waste disposal and other items.

Michael P Morgan-Dodson
Michael P Morgan-Dodson
2 months ago
Reply to  Matt Faris

Matt it is true but let us compare lane miles cost for paving, or average city vehicle purchase cost, base utility rates (remember Henrico buys a good chunk of its water still from us City folks), supervisor positions per general staff, heck divide out the salary of a city department head by the number of citizens that use that agency. Our costs are higher, processes slower, and result always far worse.

David Seibert
David Seibert
3 months ago

Thanks you to Bizsense for continuing to write these articles and beat this drum! There are a lot of really smart people that USED to work for the City. Now they work for Chesterfield, Norfolk, other functioning localities or private practice and other places that do not have a toxic culture. City Hall still has a few good apples but they are massively outnumbered. Hoping the Mayor’s office gives these issues the attention they deserve.

Mike K. Smith
Mike K. Smith
3 months ago

There is an old adage that “time is money.” Businesses know this but Richmond City government scoffs at such things. Richmond City delays are systemic and have been for YEARS and is not Pandemic-induced. That excuse is lame. Let’s blame Russia, the weather, inflation or Trump/Biden. What’s both ironic and also satisfyingly is that it took a City Councilman to get a taste of his own medicine to garner this kind of attention. Also, ironic that a $200,000 gym project makes the press but a $25m apartment project that has the same delays and results in hundreds of thousands in… Read more »

Brian Glass
Brian Glass
3 months ago

Are we forgetting that the City is farming out plan reviews to a company in California that’s unfamiliar with Virginia/Richmond code requirements? This isn’t a staffing issue, it’s a continuation of a department failure that’s been going on for well over 20 years, regardless of who’s in charge!

Farming out plan reviews to a California company is just another example of the disfunction of this department.

Malcolm Bates
Malcolm Bates
3 months ago
Reply to  Brian Glass

And we pay our real estate taxes to a company in Charlotte!

Kevin Pierpont
Kevin Pierpont
3 months ago

It’s glaring that City Council hasn’t listened to business owners truly on this subject until one of them became inconvenienced and financially burdened by it.

Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls
3 months ago

This is fantastic local journalism – thank you Richmond Bizsense! Need to hold our city government accountable.

mark brandon
mark brandon
3 months ago

it’s a test … small business is tough

Randall Hudgins
Randall Hudgins
3 months ago

Nobody wants to talk about the name Pure Phit RVA?

Michael Morgan-Dodson
Michael Morgan-Dodson
3 months ago

Love all the comments; I also find it very interesting that no recent hires, even under the previous Jones administration, as director of planning department or the city building commissioner are Virginia residents.

John White
John White
3 months ago

It’s hard to find a local who is willing to work for Richmond, and more specifically the Planning department. Turnover there is insane, and most end up fleeing to a county in no time. Even VCU grads (undergrad and graduate) can read between the lines. VCU has a great planning school, and Richmond is really losing out on that. So many opportunities for partnership are wasted.

Nicholas Piasecki
Nicholas Piasecki
3 months ago

It took me 60 days to get a ZCL on a second location we’re opening, just got it last week finally. Literally 60 days and $300 for someone to say “yes, that parcel actually is M-1 Light Industrial”. Let’s see how long the CZC takes. I still have no idea where my business licenses are. Finance is great at cashing your checks for tens of thousands of dollars each year but not very good at mailing out a simple slip of paper that says you’re legit… happens every year, for a license that expires January 1st they don’t show up… Read more »

Jack Guin
Jack Guin
3 months ago

Can we all just agree that Henrico should take over the city and all administration beginning 2023? And no systems, manager and above level employees, or processes from Richmond kept?

Mark Slack
Mark Slack
3 months ago

On the heels of your Time is Money article on 3/21/22, excellent follow-up on this systemic problem Jonathan! With a councilman having gotten lost in the City Hall rabbit hole, perhaps some top-down solutions may be in the works, though I’ll reserve judgement until results are in. And yes, corporate culture is at the heart of the disfunction. Enforcement is in hyper-drive, while the default approval position is ‘no’. Both are fundamental to a properly functioning municipality, but must become more in balance. Please keep up this important journalistic work to continue to shine light on leadership that is required… Read more »